Food and software: telling stories and creativity

The web and social media have pervaded almost every area of our lives. But few subjects (cats excepted) have created as much online activity as food. In our thousands and millions, we order takeaway from our phones, Instagram pictures of meals, blog about recipes, write restaurant reviews and count our calories. 

But we seem to divide into two tribes when it comes to food. The Hedonists love a beautiful food photo, a delicious recipe, a Pinterest board, a 'dirty burger' pop-up. They are telling stories about themselves through the food that they make and eat. They are seeking new ideas, 'trending' ingredients and creative recipes. They may also be looking for guidance - videos are a brilliant tool for instructional content, and learning to cook is a great example. Jamie Oliver's FoodTube is just one of many YouTube channels showing people how to make dishes, or perhaps just showing one technique in detail.

In the other camp are the Functionalists. These hardy souls use the power of data capture and tracking to optimise their diet, make their food shopping more efficient, reduce calories, boost health. The extreme end of this camp are those who make up Soylent shakes - functionally complete mixtures of protein powder, oats and oil that sustain but bring little pleasure. Others may join this camp through necessity, seeking the information they need to construct a diet that will not make them sick, navigating hidden ingredients and allergens. 

Software has a chequered history in the kitchen. Some of the earliest home computers boasted the ability to store and retrieve recipes or shopping lists. Some sixties future-gazers even predicted online shopping ('goods selected by the wife, are paid for by the husband on his counterpart console'). Certainly, to a programmer's eye, recipes are neatly structured sets of instructions that can be easily stored and searched. Eliza Acton in 1845 was among the first to introduce the helpful innovation of listing ingredients at the start, and giving more precise timings and amounts. This introduced a welcome structure and precision to recipe writing, which had previously been a somewhat freeform exercise. However, that structure can convey a misleading precision. Ingredients can be substituted, many amounts are somewhat flexible and cooking times depend on many factors including the altitude, the individual oven and the weather conditions. And then there are the header notes, and the prose of the method, which in the best recipes convey a sense of who the writer is, and what sort of person the recipe is for, as well as qualitative information about how to make the dish.

So, the kitchen has remained resistant to recipe 'databases' and instead, cookery books (in hard copy) continue to outsell all other non-fiction titles. The internet fridge has not taken off, despite repeated attempts. The one software device that has successfully invaded is the iPad, offering food magazines, videos, recipe searches and blog posts. Only this multipurpose device seems to be adaptable enough to give us software that really helps us with food, rather than adding time-consuming extra steps. 

Where precision and replicability are more important, in restaurants and industrial kitchens, software plays a more essential role. Controlling production, supply chains, monitoring demand and blending ingredients to produce consistent results from the natural variation of ingredients can all be supported by software.

More recently, chefs have started to look to software for creativity. Watson, IBM's supercomputer that has already turned its hand to medical diagnosis and competing on Jeopardy, has now produced a cookbook, in partnership with the Institute of Culinary Education. Watson was programmed with the chemical compositions of foods, and some existing food combinations. It then looked for foods that were likely to taste good together, but have rarely been combined in cooking (often because they are derived from very different cultures). These ingredient lists were then used by the Institute of Culinary Education to create new recipes. From this we get a Turkish-Korean Caesar salad, or an Indian turmeric paella.

Ferran Adria, the former chef of super-restaurant El Bulli, is embarking on a similar enterprise in compiling his Bullipedia. He has invited collaborators to propose ways of 'hacking' this repository of information. One of the winners, Huevo, proposed creating a programming language of food. By translating the components of food and cooking into programming commands, they want to create a software equivalent of recipes and food combinations. They even envision incorporating this into an augmented kitchen, with projections to instruct you as you go.

So maybe these first attempts at bringing together data and optimisation with creativity and enjoyment will bridge the gap between the Hedonists and the Functionalists.

Image credit: IBM Research via Flickr


Louise Marston

Louise Marston

Louise Marston

Director of Innovation Policy and Futures

Louise was Director of Innovation Policy and Futures within the Policy and Research team. She managed Nesta's work on innovation policy and technology futures. She previously worked on…

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